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Creeping Lava Has Hawaiians on Edge

Hawaii's Kilauea, one of the most active volcanos on Earth, has been erupting for more than 30 years. But lava from a vent near Pahoa that started bubbling up last June has been edging toward the town, outside the city of Hilo.

It has become a tourist attraction, and visitors gather near a trash transfer station where the lava has claimed a home. Its roof can be seen in the distance, above the black hardened lava.

At the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, scientist Jim Kauahikaua of the U.S. Geological Survey said the lava flow near Pahoa, one of two active rifts, is intermittent.

“For a brief period, we were trying to forecast that, and every one of those forecasts was wrong because of this start-and-stop feature," he said. "So the USGS and Civil Defense are still trying to give people the idea of maybe the worst-case scenarios and such, but there’s virtually no way of forecasting more than a day or two in advance.”

In Honolulu, University of Hawaii researcher Bruce Houghton is analyzing the eruption using high-speed photography. He said that our understanding of volcanoes is improving with input from many scientific disciplines.

This photo of the Kilauea lava flow at Pahoa, Hawaii, was taken Jan. 22. The lava is now flowing on another, nearby leg.

This photo of the Kilauea lava flow at Pahoa, Hawaii, was taken Jan. 22. The lava is now flowing on another, nearby leg.

“Bits from chemistry, bits from physics, and always with an overlay of social science, because when all is said and done, it doesn’t matter how well we predict the behavior of the volcano," he said. "If the behavior of the community is inappropriate for what’s happening, then you still get a disaster."

In Pahoa, weekly meetings update the residents, as the lava approaches within 500 meters of the local highway. Some businesses are open, while others have relocated.

Business owner Constance Rojcewicz is keeping an eye on the creeping lava.

“It’s a little bit unnerving," she said. "You want to be ready. I’ll be ready to move out if I need to, in a day or two.”

The uncertainty is hard on residents, said church worker Karl Ragan of Hawaii-Pacific Baptist Disaster Relief.

“We’ve discovered the stress level on families, on interpersonal relationships, on children — that’s the crisis right now,” he said.

Hawaii County Fire Chief Darren Rosario said the lava is bringing long-lasting changes.

“When the lava flow comes through, its effects remain for hundreds of years," he said. "The hardened lava rock remains there for a very long time. But that’s how the islands were built. That’s how we grow as a state.”

Rosario said the volcano is a part of life on these islands.

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